Today Spankrock's debut album YoYoYoYoYo hits stores, and you should dig into those couch cushions ASAP and scrape up some change for it. Just in case that hearty, one-sentence endorsement isn't enough, we've posted up our feature on Young Spank from F36 after the jump for further convincing. Read it - and go check them live!
King Of Clubs
Spankrock's new-wave, wild-out dancefloor bump
By Nick Barat
“My favorite shows are real shows,” explains Naeem Juwan, the Philly-via-Baltimore MC who goes by the name Spankrock. “I love seeing P-Funk, seeing Prince. When Wyclef toured for The Carnival, that was one of my favorite shows ever. If I had it my way, our live show would be the most over-the-top, retarded performance of all time. But I don’t have the means to do that yet.” Over the past two years, Spankrock shows at places like the Ottobar in Baltimore, Rothko in NYC, and Philadelphia’s Silk City (a tiny nightclub built onto the side of a downtown diner) have included booty dancers in sequined hot pants, a family of djembe drummers, two DJs, a megaphoned hypeman triggering 808 samples, and a foulmouthed white female rapper who shouts out Kelly Bundy—sometimes all in the course of a single set. Even with a warped Peanuts gang of performers backing him up, the real “show” has always just been Spankrock himself. Clad in slacks, oversized eyeglasses, maybe an MJ-worthy fedora depending on the night, Juwan doesn’t look or sound like any other rapper as he delivers hyper, clever lyrics over high-BPM beats informed as much by 2 Live Crew and Rod Lee as new wave and experimental electronic music. But this isn’t art rap—it’s some party shit. From the first distorted bass kick, verses are spit and choruses chanted in between smooth-ass dance moves and swooning, Elvis-like dips with the mic stand. Spankrock’s star quality is as undeniable as it is unconventional. “I get excited when James Brown drops down to his knees and they bring the cape out,” says Juwan. “So why can’t I give that same feeling and passion in my shows?”
Before Madonna released her most recent album last year, there was a promotional blitz centered around small club appearances. She never actually performed during these visits—just walked up to the turntables and posed for pictures—but in one of the press shots, taken at Luke & Leroy in Manhattan’s West Village, you could clearly make out a Spankrock sticker in the background, slapped on the wall while he performed on the club’s makeshift stage during the middle of another party the night before. It was just a coincidence, but a weirdly telling one. Madonna’s promo scheme was a calculated, “back to my roots” gesture to clubs ostensibly like those that she took her sound and style from in the early ’80s. Spankrock is one of the first artists to rise up out of his own club scene—one where the kids coming to get tore the fuck up on free Sparks most definitely do not want to hear “Lucky Star” on the speakers while doing so.
The night of the Spankrock show at Luke & Leroy, sloppy girls with cute haircuts and cuter tattoos danced up on each other, gay graffiti dudes caught tags on the red bathroom doors, and none of the skate dirtbags in elaborately detailed New Era fitteds even attempted to disguise the blunts they were lighting on candles from the side tables. Turn around while getting a drink at the bar, and there’s Spankrock next to you, grinding away with one of his dancers and trying not to spill his drink on her bandana. Once the already-leaning MC gets up on stage and starts pumping his skinny fist, shouting Put, put, put that pussy on me, it all makes some sort of cosmic sense. As the instrumental speeds up the Neptunes’ drums from Snoop’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” to a Miami Bass tempo and loops up the orchestral intro from the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” on top, Spankrock manages to throw in a mix of X-rated chants and offhand social commentary—I create/ Styles of a superior taste that/ Some white boys sure to imitate. It knocks, it’s creative, and it’s tailormade for people already out for a different sort of fix.
Spankrock producer Alex “Armani XXXchange” Epton has lived in the same Brooklyn apartment for about seven years, but only just recently moved into his girlfriend’s room so that his bedroom could serve as a full-time studio. To get in, you have to step over a pile of discarded recording equipment lying on the floor by the doorway. “That pedal sucks,” he says with a manic chuckle. “I only bought it because it had a button that said ‘robot.’” All of Spankrock’s forthcoming album YoYoYoYoYo was recorded in that same bedroom. Around two years ago, the pair started making music as a byproduct of just hanging out; it was an anything-goes process which pushed Juwan to break out of what he calls “that sort of underground, battle-rap Rawkus sort of rapping” he had been caught up in as a teen.
Epton grew up with Juwan in Baltimore, a few years older than him but the same age as Spankrock show DJ Chris Rockswell. “Chris lived down the street from me,” he says. “We met through whatever, skateboarding and smoking pot and doing dumb shit. He went to high school with Naeem, and that’s how I knew him.” After high school, Epton “basically failed out” of the New England Conservatory, but finished his music classes at NYU while drumming for Zero Zero, one of the first bands produced by the DFA. The band soon dissolved, but Epton stayed on to intern at the studio, where he watched recording sessions for early LCD Soundsystem singles, played some synth drums for a Le Tigre remix, and soaked up hours of science on deconstructing and reconstructing dance music. “One day James Murphy threw out this microphone, and gave it to Davy [of Zero Zero],” says Epton. “Davy couldn’t make it work either—it was a total piece of shit, there was this big chunky wire frame over it that was picking up all sorts of weird interference. But I fucked around enough to fix it, and we were able to record most of Naeem’s vocals for this album with it.”
While Epton was finishing at NYU, Juwan was just starting to figure himself out at Drexel University in Philly. “I went to a prep school [in Baltimore] so I was sort of misplaced anyway—I didn’t really fit in anywhere,” he explains. “Once I moved to Philly, things totally changed for me. I had the freedom to get into the shit I wanted to get into. Just seeing young kids playing instruments, like ‘Oh shit! Motherfucker’s playing this trumpet real good, and he’s my age!’ Or to go out to an open mic and have a live band backing you. I don’t know if that happens everywhere, when you can go out to parties and actually hear all the music you want to listen to.” These parties would include Diplo and Low Budget’s Hollertronix events at a rented Ukranian hall—sweaty, Obolon-soaked bashes with a soundtrack that connected the dots between thump-addicted regional rap, ’80s synthpop, and the Bmore club Juwan had loved since middle-school basement parties and sneaking into spots like Baltimore’s Paradox. “When I first got to Philly, I saw Low Budget DJ and I was completely blown away,” says Juwan. “So I would just look through the City Paper and every time I saw Low Budget’s name I would go out to the party. He just knew me as that crazy kid dancing at Hollertronix and shit.” Once the first Spankrock demos were recorded, Juwan gave a copy to Low Budget, who passed it along to Diplo, who brought the demo to his label Big Dada, which will be releasing the Spankrock LP this spring.
YoYoYoYoYo is one particularly addled night out with Spank and Co, given real dimension on a mixing board. “I think that our music is pretty fun,” says Epton. “I want people to listen to it and enjoy it, but its got to have substance too, whether it’s something I’m doing with the production, or something Naeem is saying. We all want to have fun, but we’re not into dumb shit either.” On “Rick Rubin”, toy keyboard melodies and conga drums straight out of “Rappers Delight” back boastful self-assessments (Is it off key, is it just too hip?/ Is it too funky for your regular riffs?/ Is it the very reason that you on my dick?) and an infectious, mantra-like chorus that’s just “Rick Rubin” repeated over and over. There’s fuzzed-out storytelling about low-level drug dealers in “Duckhead khakis and starched collars” fooling around with college girls on “Coke & Wet”, the double-time flows and clipped drums of “Girls And Boys” and sub-atomic bass filthiness throughout “Backyard Betty”. Album standout “Sweet Talk” features a punk-funk guitar line backing the catchiest chorus the Rapture never wrote (Stop acting like a bitch and throw your hands up!), crescendoing with an honest to-goodness Motown vamp at the end.
But for all the ingenious, incongruous beats crafted on second-hand equipment, Spankrock’s own personality is what makes it all work—the way someone so mild mannered—even shy—in conversation can jump up on beat to shout She was an ass-shakin competition champ/ Oooh, that pussy get damp/ Pop, pop, pop, pop that, pop that! in front of a packed club. It’s not a put-on or persona, but the exact opposite—a regular kid being transformed by the club. There’s a real magic in watching someone go from wilding out and dancing next to you, to getting on stage and absolutely destroying it with songs of his own. “When I do shows in Philly, and see the people who I go out and party with, some of them don’t even know I rap!” says Juwan. “I think that translates to the music—something about this happening so fast makes it exciting for us.” In a matter of months, Spankrock has shared stages with Bun B at the Hollertronix “Hollerween” extravaganza, been booked for shows around the country, and was selected to open MIA’s first headlining tour, all while having little more than an indie 12” out. I ask him if it’s helpful to have people like Diplo and Low Budget offering pointers and support, and he responds, “No man, it’s fucking confusing, it makes me nervous! People tell you, Oh, watch out for this shit, watch out for this person—I didn’t know I had to watch out for anything.”
That honest, unsure charm certainly comes across on record, and even moreso onstage. Philadelphia is one of the places Spankrock has performed the least—partially because Juwan’s still worried that, as he puts it, “People might tell me I suck.” Even with all the frenzied jumping and shouting and pussy popping chants, Spankrock’s wild onstage energy is still very much of the nervous variety. “Everything’s so new, everytime I perform I have to prove myself again,” he says. “It’s all about winning people over, getting people to figure out what it is that we do. Even getting my father to figure out what I’m doing is good.” Around last Christmas, Juwan performed at the Talking Head in Baltimore, and his family was in the crowd. “We had the drummers there, it was probably the most soulful show we’ve ever done,” he says. “My father was like, ‘You did a pretty good job.’ But he told my mom, and she was like, ‘If he’s telling me you did a good job, you must have been doing something crazy.’”